Lawmaker’s Morning at Park Ended by District Guards

Senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua walked into Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Wednesday morning, trailed by a small group of news photographers, and stopped to pose in front of about 100 municipal riot police exercising in the park.

Ms. Sochua’s small act of defiance against the CPP government’s vague and selectively enforced prohibition on public gatherings didn’t break any laws—and it could hardly be defined as a gathering.

People exercise at Phnom Penh's Freedom Park on Wednesday evening. (Siv Channa)
People exercise at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Wednesday evening. (Siv Channa)

But she was quickly surrounded by a ring of young men in dark motorcycle helmets. The men—secretive district security guards under the employ of the Interior Ministry—seized Ms. Sochua and forced her to decamp to an adjacent street.

In video clips posted to Facebook, Ms. Sochua can be seen demanding to know what law she had broken and on whose authority the men were acting.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said Ms. Sochua’s morning outing to Freedom Park was banned under existing laws.

He said Ms. Sochua, who is also the CNRP’s director of public affairs, was required to apply in writing to the government before entering the park due to her tendency to begin protests.

“As we know, under the demonstrations law, people need to ask or inform [the municipality] for permission first,” Mr. Dimanche explained. “When she arrived, she wanted to rally with people and express her views.”

“That is against the law.”

A January 4 Interior Ministry edict—handed down after days of lethal protest repression by Mr. Hun Sen’s government—prohibits public meetings of more than 10 people without express permission from the government.

Kim Vutha, commander of the helmeted Daun Penh district security guards, declined to say why Ms. Sochua’s public outings now count as protests.

“Don’t ask me, I only implement orders,” he said. “I can’t clarify anything.”

General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, acknowledged that Ms. Sochua hadn’t violated any laws or edicts.

He said that the district security guards, who were on their morning patrol of potential protest sites, simply didn’t like her.

“She went alone to Freedom Park. This is not under the guidelines of the municipality, or any other law,” Mr. Sopheak said. “This was about her personal behavior. They don’t like her. She always just goes there to provoke and blame them.”

“It’s human behavior that the people don’t like her,” Gen. Sopheak continues. “[One of the guards] told me secretly: Even her speech is not in a Cambodian tone, it’s in an American tone. I ask, and they even hate her speech.”

Ms. Sochua fled the Khmer Rouge for France as a child and completed her university studies in the U.S. She returned to the country in 1989 as Mr. Hun Sen’s government moved away from oppressive Vietnamese-style communism.

From 1998 to 2004, Ms. Sochua served in Mr. Hun Sen’s government as the Funcinpec Minister of Women’s Affairs.

Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst who formerly served as director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said the classification of Ms. Sochua’s presence at Freedom Park as a demonstration requiring permission was irregular.

“This is another arbitrary interpretation of the law on demonstrations,” he said, explaining that the law was being used by the government as it saw fit.

Mr. Hun Sen indicated in February that his blanket ban on public gatherings had been lifted. However, in the days that followed, Mr. Vutha’s helmeted security guards repeatedly clashed with those who dared to return to the streets to test the order.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng banned a planned rally by Ms. Sochua’s CNRP at Freedom Park on Sunday, which would have been its first since the government’s January wave of repression that saw five people shot dead.

Military police occupied the park on Sunday as a group of about 1,000 protesters instead marched unimpeded to the CNRP’s headquarters in Meanchey district.

“We cannot make heads or tails of what exactly their policy is,” Mr. Mong Hay said. “It is very confusing, they want to suspend our constitutional rights and enforce it by cracking down but it is not clear what the order even is.”

Freedom Park was built in 2010 at a cost of over $183,000 after a new law on demonstrations called for open spaces in every municipality and province that would allow for protests to be held at short notice.

Ms. Sochua said she would return to Freedom Park again this morning.

Under the current political climate, she said, Mr. Dimanche was not entirely confused in his description of her trip to Freedom Park as a demonstration.

“He’s totally right,” she said. “It’s a demonstration of my freedom as a citizen.”,

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